Tuesday, January 23, 2007

On childhood wounds

A few days ago I read a post describing the pain and humiliation of a gay man who had overheard someone referring to him with a homophobic epithet. I could empathize fully. I’ve felt that same pain and sense of shame in similar circumstances. What interests me, however, is why we, even those of us, men ostensibly quite comfortable with our sexual orientation, react with such hurt and humiliation. When we were still in the closet we thought that once we were out, that gnawing fear of being called a faggot would go away. It didn’t, and it won’t.

Many of us have come to quite solid terms with our homosexuality. We are out to family, friends, and at work. Many of us are in partnerships, some of these partnerships even recognized by the state, and do not in any way hide or disguise our sexual orientation even to total strangers. If, then, we are so comfortable with our homosexuality, why does it hurt so much when someone calls us a fag or a queer?

I can't accept that this vulnerability belies any residual self- hate concerning our homosexuality. Just because you cringe when someone calls you a faggot does not at all necessarily mean that you are in any realized manner uncomfortable with your gay identity.

The fellow writing the post likened his reaction to the pain he suffered when he was taunted with being a faggot or sissy as a child, and he wonders why he feels the same way as a man. I would suggest that the pain we now feel in such circumstances is not just similar to the pain we felt as children; it is, in fact a reawakening of that same pain. The wounds our childhood tormentors left on our defenseless and vulnerable hearts are evidently still there, incurable and permanent.

I would offer as substantiation that other types of insults, unrelated to childhood torments, can produce anger or even shame, but they do not produce the same searing humiliation. You can insult my looks, my intelligence, my ambition, my nationality, my politics, etc, and you will make me uncomfortable, even provoke me, but you will not make me want to go and hide, as you do when you call me a faggot. The only other type of offense that makes me burn with humiliation is anti-Semitism, another theme of childhood nightmares.

I guess that the horrible fact is that there is no way, no matter what we do later in life, that we can heal those deeply planted wounds from childhood. No matter how secure we feel as gay men, we carry those wounds within us; they are ready to open up and bleed at the least provocation.

Each of us copes with these wounds in his own way. I honed my intelligence and wit dagger sharp and at an early age learned how to strike back very effectively against homophobic taunts. The price of this defense, of course, was that I grew up regarding my intellectual faculties as a weapon instead of a source of pleasure and understanding. It took me years of emotional reorientation to begin to set this right. Other guys become painfully shy, avoiding contact wherever possible. Yet others are “in your face,” flaunting their “queerness” before anyone can attack them for it. I wonder how much of our lives are formed around protecting ourselves from the pain that prodding these wounds causes.

Recently, I ran a post discussing the limited usefulness of the generally shared gay practice of making lists of illustrious gays. Obviously, such lists are an attempt to cope with these wounds. I, frankly, don’t think they do much good in this regard. They remind me of my father’s attempts at consoling me after anti-Semitic incidents by reminding me that Freud, Einstein, and Marx (We were proudly pink-o) were Jews. It didn’t do a damn bit of good. There isn’t any effective balm; we can only try to protect future generations.

There should be some way to protect potentially gay children from this spiritual mutilation. What such childhood taunts do to people who develop gay and the stubborn permanence of the wounds they leave should be part of all teacher education programs, and gay organizations should be insistent on this point.

That the immediate perpetrators of this damage are other children is, in fact, irrelevant. Children are no longer permitted to taunt other children because of their race or religion. Any school that would allow this would soon find itself with legal problems. There is no reason why such a standard of behavior should not be applied to sexually related taunts.

In addition, it was not always the other children who inflicted these wounds. Frequently, it was the teachers themselves who encouraged these taunts, either directly, through derogatory comments they themselves made, or indirectly by showing indifference to the sadism and bullying of some of the children in their charge. The possibilities of taking legal, or at least professional disciplinary action against such teachers should be investigated.

In recent years we have developed, especially in the US but now increasingly in Europe, a heightened consciousness of psychological dangers to children. You can’t pat the head of a neighbor’s child without arousing fears of pedophilia. Nevertheless, we as a society still permit and even condone merciless, sadistic taunting of potentially gay children. The agents themselves may be children, but it is most frequently adults who form the context that not only allows but also encourages this behavior.


Blogger Sam said...

You make some very good, logical points.. I have to wonder if they've ever even made it to the radar screen of policy makers.


The above link is for the "Ask the White House" link at the United States Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, website. Can't for the life of me find a button marked "submit a question," wonder if they really seek questions from the public?? :) I'd love to get Spellings to read your post and comment.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...

I checked out Spelling's link. You're right. There's no way of leaving a question specifically to Spellings. Also, it seems pretty clear that all the questions on her site were written and answered by administration PR people. There is not even an attempt to disguise the common authorship of all the questions through stylistic variation. It really is an insult to our intelligence; but the administration has a right to insult our intelligence. We voted it into power.

11:27 AM  
Anonymous curtis said...

You put it much more eloquently than I ever could. Well done!

1:05 PM  
Blogger Ur-spo said...

you have such thoughtful and well reasoned entries; I very much enjoy reading your thoughts.

7:35 PM  
Anonymous Albert said...

Learned behavior is hard to change. Our bodies react certain ways when children and once that behavior is learned, as adults it becomes an automatic response.
The person who is also doing the taunting has also learned that behavior from somewhere. Most times it is from friends and family. Again once that behavior is learned the behavior is carried through to adulthood.
Interesting post! My first time here, but I will be back!!!

6:46 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

A very thoughtful and well-written piece. Thank you!
I read somewhere recently that when polled school children still say that the absolute worst thing a child can be called is "faggot", "gay", or "queer." They know it and they use it for its stinging affect which is both a reflection on the cruelty of children and how negatively being gay is still perceived in our society.

6:54 AM  
Blogger thephoenixnyc said...

While I can't imagine what the pain of that particular insult must be like, I do know my own kind of pain.

I know that old triggers for making me feel less-than, humiliation and hurt still can get to me as well.

But I don't belive that you can never get over these things as you said in your post. There is a way. I found it, so can you.

7:41 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...


The only way I can imagine is psychotherapy, which can excorcize such deamons by getting you to experience childhood traumas emotionally as an adult.

It did, in fact, help me deal with these issues, but its effectiveness depended on a few elements of chance: 1) I found the right doctor--- I later found out, years after my somewhat successful treatment, that my doctor had become rather prominent as an authority on problems related to male homosexuality. 2) I come from a cultural milieu that is receptive to psychotherapy. 3) My circumstances, both financial and physical--- I lived in a major city with adequate medical services of this type--- allowed me to seek and find competent help.

In short, psychotherapy isn't for everyone with this type of problem, and competent treatment isn't available fo everyone who could use it.

9:30 AM  
Anonymous Scott said...

children say mean things all the time. And then they know to fogive the taunts. It is a matter of who is and who isn't to them... who is different. It is a matter of innocence. Experiencing humiliation when you hear the word 'faggot' is on your part. I feel rage and disdain.

1:27 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...


That's precisely the point. Children do, in fact, "forgive." They are trained to do so by their parents and teachers, and forgiveness is quite necessary for civilized society to operate. Society simply could not go on if offenses were not forgiven.

We even seem to be wired so that we not only forgive our tormentors, we even, in extreme cases, wind up identifying with them or defending them. In cases of torture, for example, it is quite common for the victim's self esteem to be so damaged that he identifies with his torturer and feels that he somehow deserves to be tortured. This is not an indevidual opinion of mine; it is chapter and verse from handbooks for those who deal with torture victims.

But that does not at all mean that the wounds inflicted by these taunts do not remain, even when the victim has quite sincerely forgiven his tormentor. It is, in fact, the conflict between these remaining wounds and the mandate to forgive and accept, and even agree with the tormentor, that creates the reaction that I and others have described.

I do not doubt that you and some others have managed to escape this syndrome. But you should consider yourselves very lucky; enough of us in the gay community seem not to have been quite as fortunate, and thereby it justifiably should be considered a problem.

1:46 AM  
Blogger MaggieMay said...

What a beautiful, thoughtful post. Not being gay, I can't speak with any kind of authority here, but let me offer another idea:

I don't doubt that childhood wounds are a huge part of the feeling of humiliation. But I wonder if part of it is also surprise-- and humiliation at being surprised.

When people *don't* utter such hateful things, I know I sometimes get fooled into some kumbayah version of the world, at least regarding certain issues... and upon hearing something that ugly, it jolts me back into painful reality. I'm always embarrassed, as in: "How could I have believed that people are *over* this? How could I have felt safe here?" etc.

5:18 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...

Maggie May,

Thanks for your interesting comment Unfortunately, Maggie May, gay people are not at all "surprised" by such comments. They happen too often. Many of us have developed a type of antennae that pretty much let us know when a homophobic verbal attack is about to come.

6:29 AM  
Blogger zooplah said...

I stand by my belief that the reason it bothers and/or enrages us is that it's always meant negatively. It is something that I can see as affecting all expressions of hate (whether to homosexuals, African-Americans, Hispanics, or whatever).

6:43 PM  
Blogger gayuganda said...

Very interesting post. Tackling it from my environment- the Church minister continuously stresses the 'sinfulness' of homosexuality. In school we are set essays on the immorality of homosexuality. Church, state, and society continuously weave a mesh of overwhelming condemnation that no child can shrug off. Any wonder that that child as an adult will cringe from admitting that they are gay?

10:50 AM  

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